Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev in 1962 was interested in exposing the flaws of Stalinism for political purposes; when the editor of Novyi Mir brought him a copy of the manuscript by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918–2008), Khrushchev approved of its publication. Soon thereafter, the novel catapulted Solzhenitsyn into world prominence as an author. Ostensibly Solzhenitsyn’s first novel observes the ancient classical unity of time and place prescribed by Aristotle in the Poetics, limiting its scope to a 24-hour period in one place. But because of memory and references to history, the novel’s representation of the acts that led to unjust imprisonment and of the illogical savagery of the system itself, and because the central issue of the story is the universal problem of human dignity, the work seems to cover a much vaster canvas than that of one individual.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich follows the events of an ordinary day for a zek, or Soviet concentration camp prisoner, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, from his awakening to sleep. Partially because Solzhenitsyn had himself spent time in such a camp, its minute, concrete detail has absorbing power. Ivan, a former peasant carpenter who has little education, narrates the novel from a narrow first-person perspective with limitations appropriate to his character. The realistic detail and the speaker’s detachment render a peculiar mixture of objectivity and subjectivity. Ivan himself is quite restrained, almost detached; however, his stoic determination and his craving for dignity deliver great emotional impact.
Set in Siberia in January 1951, the novel casts together prisoners from several strata of Soviet society; the inmates include a former Chekist (secret policeman), a Baptist, Balkan nationals, a son of a wealthy peasant, a former naval officer, and others. Many of them were faithful communists, but they were still sentenced for real or imagined crimes of disloyalty, violating the perfect submission to Stalin required by the Soviet regime. Ivan had fought valiantly in World War II, but had been encircled, then escaped the enemy. In the minds of the Soviet leaders, this makes him suspicious, so he has been charged with treason and sentenced to 10 years—although he can have no real certainty of being released after this lengthy imprisonment. Since the trials are not intended to produce justice but to force confessions and render sentencing, Shukhov, rather than choosing to be shot, gives the demanded “confession.” Others have been sentenced for their religious beliefs; one has been arrested for not informing on his father, a wealthy peasant farmer. The prisoners no longer have any rights, the authorities tell them; criminals are nonpersons. But as terror and corruption become the way of operating throughout the Soviet system, the novel implies, this makes all of them prisoners to differing degrees.
Most story details are consistent with the theme of systemic, widespread corruption throughout the legal, military, penal, bureaucratic, and other organs of the Soviet state. At the camp, the system functions via bribery, intimidation, blackmail, and violence; prisoners’ bread rations, which are necessary to survival, become currency to be traded, so the prisoners’ rations are always short. Packages from home also are subject to “filtering” and barter. It is clear, for example, that the unit’s foreman, Tiurin, bribes an official with salt pork so that his men can avoid a work detail on an exposed steppe where many prisoners would surely die.
Before sunrise the prisoners are awakened by the banging of a hammer on an iron rail. Shukhov feels sick, and he lingers in bed, but a guard punishes him for doing so, dealing out three day’s penalty status, with work. Shukhov should have made the sick list, but he has missed the time to declare it, so he must go work while ill. They are sent to do construction in the cold, but the bitter cold itself proves a great impediment: they must start fires to keep warm and to keep the mortar from freezing. In fact, the unit forages about to find material to insulate their windows, and this act endangers them until Tiurin threatens another foreman who is tempted to tell. The men are sent out into 27-degree-below zero weather to work. Even then, the authorities make them wear little clothing lest they hide anything; they are stripped to their underwear and searched in the field, a pointlessly brutal order that exposes the sadistic stupidity of the authorities. One prisoner objects, risking solitary confinement that would probably be fatal: Shukhov notes that 10 days devastates the victim’s health and 15 invariably proves fatal. Still, as bad as this unit’s lot is, Shukhov recalls that he has been in worse camps, and other units have worse duties. Solzhenitsyn, by choice, has deliberately created a typical day not for sensational extremes but for accuracy of depiction.
Although the zeks fight among themselves, they also side against the guards and the authorities, and they share other acts of kindness. At one point, they slap a prisoner out of a guard’s reach as the guard is about to club him, so the effect is that they have protected him. In other instances they share from packages or they share knowledge—Ivan’s efforts to teach Gopchik to make a spoon, for example. Shukhov tells his own family not to send him packages at all—it will be hard enough for them to make it already without sharing their meager resources with him. Though he knows that Gopchik has hoarded food from packages, Ivan excuses him lightly, perhaps because Ivan had a son of about Gopchik’s age. Alyoshka and the Baptists, in particular, seem to derive reassurance from each other, from moral support and shared faith. Shukhov clearly admires Alyoshka, though he does not believe in his religion.
The great achievement of the novel begins with Solzhenitsyn’s ability to make the prisoners’ needs pressing and their minute victories important. Work provides a beneficial distraction that can add to the prisoners’ self-worth; Shukhov sustains his pride by working well and by refusing to be wasteful; he could throw away extra mortar and quit for the day, but he prefers to take pride in his work product. Free time also has power against oppression, so the prisoners value it highly. And one’s mind is always free; Shukhov declines to intrude on his fellows’ “lofty thoughts” when they have achieved enough detachment to become contemplative. Food also takes on almost spiritual importance. The prisoners border on starvation, so every ounce of bread becomes a rung on a ladder to life. Cigarettes and soup become valuable—the prisoners crave their meager sustenance and their ethics and integrity are sorely tried.
The desperation of the camps brings out the true ethical systems of both prisoners and guards. Tsezar is the camp’s intellectual, a former film director. He tries to sustain his dignity by keeping his mind on art, as a transcendent level of meaning. His thoughts on the necessity of courage and “subversive” art are also crucial to the story’s message. The naval officer tries to retain his ultimate faith in socialism, as though the failures of the GULag penal system in his case are only unfortunate errors. The terrible ordeal brings to a head a conflict between several worldviews, but its critical center revolves around human dignity: How can an individual in an unjust and chaotic world sustain value in living? Alyoshka and the Baptists believe that one serves God under whatever circumstances He has placed one in, without knowing what this will contribute to God’s ultimate purposes. Ivan does not cast his lot with any of them; he merely survives and clings to his dignity.
Another of the zeks’ views is simply that the law of the jungle rules in the camps—that is, each must do whatever is necessary to survive, regardless of ethical or even human considerations. To some degree this law of force seems inherent in the Soviet mind; it is pragmatic, mechanistic, and materialistic. This position is codified in short propositions by an old prisoner named Kuziomin who advises others never to lick another prisoner’s bowl; don’t “squeal” on your fellow prisoners, and don’t count on the doctors to save your life.
The prisoners crave the tiniest amounts of food, so to forgo even the scraps of food left behind by another prisoner requires strength of will. To inform on another prisoner, to ingratiate oneself to the indifferent and brutal guards reveals a lack of personal strength necessary to survive. But it is mainly the vestiges of individual reserve that declare one’s humanity, the very thing the system has tried to take away. Ultimately, Kuziomin’s code proves inadequate, capable of sustaining life only at a minimum level; Ivan wants more. Ivan struggles to maintain a spiritual separation from the physical regimentation and degradation. Despite his grim surroundings, his struggle for dignity gives the novel redemptive power.
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